Part One – Winch to Exton
Monday 29th February dawned clear, crisp, blue and bright and remained so for the rest of the day. It was, therefore, a great pity that we hadn’t planned the walk for that day. Instead, we walked following day, Tuesday 1st March (St David’s Day) which dawned wet and got wetter. We, by the way, consisted of; Adam Bagnall (Shop Manager), Robin Thorpe (Shop Cellarman) and myself Edmund Jenner (Tech Services Manager).
Having left Lewes aboard the 06:26 train, we arrived in Winchester and walked down, over a bewildering number of pedestrian crossings, to the High Street. I dived into the local branch of WHSmith to purchase a map (as ever, well organised) and Robin, who had already foraged us some Ivy Leaved Toad Flax from a Winchester wall side, went off in search of Winchester cheese – more on that later. Winchester’s WHSmith is really rather impressive being partly built into a former Masonic Hall. The first floor has a timber, hammer-beam roof and moulded plasterwork depicting, among other things, King Arthur at the Round Table and King Alfred in the Shepherd’s Hut.
The River Itchen was flowing fast through the city as we passed the city mill. A multitude of little waves were bobbing all over the surface of the rapidly moving water. Hampshire does chalk streams very well and the Itchen through Winchester is extremely beautiful. Small weirs channel the river into people’s gardens, feeding water features, before re-joining the river again downstream. The river is broken by thin, artificial islands joined to the banks by rustic bridges.
‘We had no time to stand and stare’, however. We were four hours in and were yet to walk any of the route. After taking a few photographs we departed Winchester, in the rain, for Exton – eleven or twelve miles away.
“There were no other sounds, no cries from the plain below, still and sleepy under the sun, no sound from seaward, save occasionally the far-away dull boom of the guns at Portsmouth.” – ‘The Spirit Of The Downs’, Arthur Becket, 1909.
We crossed over the thundering M3, the spray drifting up to us on the high bridge adding to the already wet conditions and made our way over a muddy field to the sound of small arms fire from the nearby Chilcomb range.
While Cheesefoot Head has – in clear weather – breath-taking views, they are by no means its only appeal. Fine old beech trees line the path growing into one another, their trunks twisted into grotesque faces with bark looking like heaving skin. The rain was cascading down their sides making them seem as waterfalls; Adam and I were quite mesmerised until Robin pointed out that beech trees have a nasty habit of dropping their limbs without warning.
The natural amphitheatre beneath Cheesefoot Head is often the scene of music festivals and while none such was taking place as we passed, a few forgotten relics remained to remind us.
Making our way along a path that was, quite literally, hedged in on either side provided an excellent ornithological opportunity. Flitting away from our approach were robins, chaffinches and dunnocks, but to our delight, larks were braving the weather to ascend and sing. We heard the ravens ‘grunting’ about the fields before we saw them. Buzzards were soaring as high as ever but the spot of the day was that of red kites, deftly twisting on the breeze.
It had been our intention to buy some Old Winchester cheese to accompany our lunch of Robin’s soda bread and Porter. Upon enquiry in Winchester, we were told that the deli had closed and so a sustainable, ‘local’ alternative was hastily found.
Suitably sustained, we carried on past what I confidently told everyone was a Royal Observer Corps nuclear monitoring post only to discover later was, in fact, a reservoir. Showing staunch dedication we marched passed a very welcoming pub which had an impressive array of empty casks outside and headed on, over Beacon Hill, to Exton, taking the ‘quicker’ path through the field. Progress was much hampered by the fact that the ground was so wet and the hillside so steep that we had to sidestep our way down to avoid failing over. But this green-grey valley had almost the only piece of ‘Downland’ we had seen all day. In Exton, we arrived at the Shoe Inn where we were welcomed in despite our muddy clothes and, no doubt, disheveled appearance. After an excellent pint of Wadsworth 6X the first day had been completed and we boarded our ride home.
Ivy Leaved Toad Flax (Cymbalaria muralis) otherwise known as Rabbit, Wandering Jenny and a great many more besides, is a southern European plant which is now naturalised in the UK. It has and has a pungent cress-like flavour, a perfect foil for our rustic food. This rather pretty and prolific wallflower has an ingenious method of propagation: The flower stalk grows towards the light until fertilisation when it then grows away from the light, back into the cracks and crevices of walls or rocks where the seed has the best chance of germination.
On route, Robin found ‘King Alfred’s Cakes’ (Daldinia concentrica) growing on an ash. It is presumably so called as it is thought to resemble the cakes that King Alfred allegedly allowed to burn. It seems appropriate that we should have found this as we walked from Winchester, where King Alfred reigned from. This inedible fungus is also known as Cramp Balls was carried by wayfarers in the past to ward off cramp! Another, more effective, use is to catch a spark from a flint and steel and treat the fungus as a glowing coal to ignite a bundle of tinder. Robin reports that it is possible to use them as a portable firelighter, but advises caution.
Outcrops of frost-weathered lower chalk (grey and softer than the whiter upper chalk); it contains more clay mud in composition, deposited closer to land than the white marine upper chalk.
Big Thank Yous
To Colin, Adam’s Dad for collecting us.
To Daph, Robin’s Mum, for making us sandwiches.
To the Shoe Inn for being so welcoming to three very muddy men
Robin’s Recipe: 1859 Porter, Winchester Cheese & Onion Soda Bread
Based on a recipe from the excellent www.southdowns.online.org